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The Promotion Game

How to Compete

J. D. Pendry

Published in the Winter 1994 edition of The NCO Journal

If you've spent enough time in the Army, then you've pondered the question: How does a person make it from staff sergeant to command sergeant major? You've seen all the formulas for success and still wondered what it really takes. Is there some magical formula for success that only a tiny percentage of enlisted soldiers (those fortunate enough to make CSM) are privy to?

I was fortunate to be appointed to CSM and have often asked myself what I did that was different from others. And, quite frankly, I've often been puzzled. Especially when I know some real professionals (an opinion derived from first hand knowledge of their performance) who didn't get selected.

Young soldiers with a background similar to mine have asked. "How did you get there from here?" I gave them all of the standard answers. Go get the tough jobs, do well in your professional development schools, be a drill sergeant, be a platoon sergeant, first sergeant, blah, blah.

Their response to me: "We know all of that, sergeant major, but what does it really take?"

I held the opinion that all a person had to do to get promoted was to successfully pass all the gates. (That's 90's lingo for getting your ticket successfully punched at all the right stops.) Then I discovered many NCOs were making these gates along the way and failing to progress beyond staff sergeant. These were, and still are, good, solid, dependable performers.

As a CSM, I have NCOs come to me for an answer to the toughest question in the Army. "Why wasn't I promoted? I've done everything I'm supposed to. I've been to all the schools. I'm not fat. I passed my SQT and my SDT, and I've never failed an APFT. Shouldn't I reasonably expect to be promoted?"

The answer has been that they should expect to be promoted.

Reviewing the records of these soldiers without having the benefit of a comparison with the records of those selected, I was able to detect some similarities. These NCOs have successfully completed the appropriate professional development courses - PLDC, BNCOC and ANCOC, have no non-judicial punishment, no reprimands and no adverse evaluations. They had stayed qualified in their MOS, never been fat, never failed an APFT and had some college. So, why hadn't they been promoted?

I really was unable to come up with an acceptable answer. Records were clean, pictures taken, etc. Then why?

I hadn't a clue. However, we conducted our search for answers together. We began by looking at the letter of instruction given the board members and concluded by reviewing the statistical profile of those selected. This search turned into and educational process for them and me.

We learned the promotion board members were instructed to pay close attention to the manner of performance of NCOs in certain duties. These jobs included ROTC and Reserve component duty, recruiting, drill sergeant, etc. In other words, special duty assignments.

The board was also tasked to pay special attention to an NCO's performance in leadership positions or in jobs with increasing levels of responsibility. Our review of NCO records showed they were really lacking in these types of assignments since the last time they were promoted. Realizing that not every NCO gets the opportunity to perform in these jobs, I knew it was not enough to disqualify them for promotion. There had to be other reasons.

The first thing we discovered during our review of the statistical profile for selectees was the low percentage overall of soldiers selected. Don't misinterpret. The percentage selected is no lower than it usually is. However, it's a small number just the same. The particular list we were looking at was the 1993 sergeant first class selection list. The first significant statistic we discovered was that 18.1 percent of those considered were selected for promotion. Putting that into proper perspective, we realized that only 18 out of every 100 considered for promotion made it.

The next task for them was how could they apply that bit of information to themselves. This required them to make an honest self-assessment. They asked themselves: "Am I in the top 18 of 100 of today's typical staff sergeants competing for sergeant first class?"

Their response to me was: "How do I determine if I'm in the top 18 percent?"

There's no rock solid formula to determine where you stand, but the are some obvious measuring sticks or indicators. I told them to start their assessment by comparing themselves to others in their unit. Did they score higher or lower than the top 18 percent of the staff sergeants in their unit on the APFT? Did they qualify higher on their assigned weapon than the top 18 percent of the staff sergeants in their unit? Did they lead physical training or other training exercises more frequently than the top 18 percent of staff sergeants in their unit? Were they asked by the leadership of their unit to lead or conduct training, or organize and participate in special projects more often than the top 18 percent of the staff sergeants in their unit?

To be competitive, affirmative responses are needed. You can expand the list of questions, but the point is made.

The next question to me was: "Well, how does a centralized board know all of this?" Quite simply, they read your NCOERs. It only takes an honest self-assessment. You know, or should, that scoring 181 on an APFT and coming down with an attack of the turtle syndrome when it's time to get out front and lead, for example, isn't going to get you rated higher than 82% of the staff sergeants who are competing for relatively few stripes.

We continued to narrow it down even more. For the particular career management field we were looking at, the selection rate was only 13.7 percent of those considered. For the sake of simplicity, we'll say that 14 out of 100 were selected. The odds were getting smaller and the competition increasingly tougher. Again, another honest assessment proved to be informative.

We examined all the questions asked before making the comparison with soldiers in the same CMF. We then considered a few more questions.

How often have you exceeded course standards in professional development schools (top 20 percent of the class)?

How often has your SQT/SDT results stated that you scored higher than 86 percent of the soldiers in your rank and MOS?

These questions drew a direct comparison with others holding the same MOS and rank that were also competing for promotion. This outfit we are in is very competitive.

We continued our search by examining the next category on the profile analysis - average time in service. Certainly not something that would disqualify them for promotion unless they had reached a retention control point, but interesting all the same.

For the CMF we were looking at the average time in service was 13.8 years for those selected for promotion. Keep in mind that this rate was based on a range from less than eight years and up to 19 years time in service.

Interesting numbers. Two out of three considered with less than eight years time in service were selected for promotion. That's 66 percent. On the other end of the spectrum, 16 to 19 years, 22 of 726 considered were selected (.03 percent!?).

The point is - if you wait, all you get is older. If you don't take steps to improve your standing based on an honest assessment this year, then you are not likely to fare any better next year or in following years. When considering time in grade, we applied the same logic.

We looked at education next. Is it a requirement for promotion? Do you need more than high school? Regulations say nothing about education. However, the average education level for the selectees in our CMF was 13.8 years.

That average was taken from a range of high school through college graduate (four or more years). Seventeen high school graduates were selected out of 625 considered, another whopping .03 percent. Fifteen college graduates out of 45 considered were selected. That's 33 percent. Is any further discussion necessary?

By the time we finished our analysis we had a good explanation as to why these fully qualified, dependable NCOs weren't selected. They simply weren't the best qualified of those considered for promotion this time. These soldiers are dependable performers and can be counted on to do their jobs well. But, after an analysis and an honest self-assessment they know where they stand, and more importantly, they know what they need to do to become competitive.

* Edited version, "when it comes to promotions, Here's What to Do to be Competitive" Published in The NCO Journal, Winter 1994

Copyright© J. D. Pendry, 1994, All Rights reserved